Before stumbling upon this interview (http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/2011/8/10/interview-with-philip-gulley-from-harmony-to-evolution.html) in one of those rabbit holes to which the internet so often leads, I had never heard of the writer Philip Gulley.
In this interview Gulley makes an observation about the relationship between internet social networks and the possibility of civil discourse in our culture that I find challenging but also tremendously hopeful.
PHILIP: For too long, the church has controlled theological discourse. We encouraged that by inventing all of this theological language we use today. The church wanted to tightly control the context in which people met and talked about these things. But the Internet has undone all of that. You no longer have to go to church to talk about spiritual matters. You can have those discussions now in online communities and in small groups that meet wherever you care to meet. Today we’re hearing about spirituality from everybody—Oprah to the Dalai Lama to your friends on Facebook. The church is no longer the only game in town. There are lots of people and places now engaged in this daily conversation—and many of them may do it better than the church.
In the past, whenever we’ve had a theological conversation sanctioned by the church, we’ve had to give our ascent to some things. We’d start by saying: OK, we are all here because we believe this and that—so we’ll start from those assumptions. Today, people wrestling with theology and spirituality don’t do that. They don’t require people to accept a whole basic set of beliefs before they even begin to talk. In many ways, the church still is trying to control and limit the scope of the conversation and that’s simply not where the energy is moving today in these reflections on faith.
DAVID: In your new book, I am fascinated by your affirmation from your own experience on Facebook that civil conversation on hot-button topics is possible. We publish a nationally known website dedicated to that very principle: OurValues. We know that’s possible, but most people assume that talking about religion is going to start a war.
PHILIP: I’ve thought a lot about this. I wonder whether people who are more moderate, polite and generally civil tend to gravitate toward my Facebook page because they know that’s my style of conversation. But I don’t think it’s just that. I tend to draw people from across the theological spectrum. I’ve got everybody from Fundamentalists to atheists among my Facebook friends. No, I think it’s something deeper. I think people are just getting very weary of the take-no-prisoners approach that religion has so often been taking. We don’t need to holler battle cries at each other. People are willing to have serious, cordial, civil discussions about these matters. People realize that all of that bellicose I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong yelling is falling on deaf ears these days.
DAVID: Is it possible to encourage this? Is it possible to teach this civil approach to conversation about faith?
PHILIP: That could be. I think people are beginning to seek out places where civil conversation is possible. People know that, if you call into some of those national radio shows that encourage confrontation, then you’re going to be contributing to people screaming at each other. In my own writing and my own work as a pastor, I try to show people that kind and thoughtful conversation is possible.
How strange and sad that a pastor trying “to show people that kind and thoughtful conversation is possible” should seem unusual and even radical.
But, there is a question that haunts the rest of the Gulley interview, and, from what I can see on the Amazon reviews of Gulley’s latest book, coils at the base of his theology.
Must I surrender conviction in order to share in civil discourse?
Is it possible to enter into “kind and thoughtful conversation” while remaining passionately committed to the content of my faith? What are the necessary skills that make it possible to share in meaningful conversation about profound issues without needing to let go of deeply held beliefs that may be radically different from those of another person with whom I am attempting to have a conversation?
Robust conversation must surely be able to embrace disagreement and avoid the trap of reducing all dialogue to a bland niceness in which differences are so diminished that any possibility of disagreement disappears.